Speculating on the Future in Postcolonial Social Sciences

Michelle Murphy

How does technoscience dream? How might technical practices that bring into apprehension a world that is not yet here, and may never come to pass, be thought of as a kind of technoscientific dreaming? Beyond debates over whether artificial intelligence technologies or computers have a consciousness within them, and hence perhaps a dream life, this trilogy of essays considers how more prosaic social science technoscientific practices make shared dreamscapes. In asking how technoscience might dream, I want to think about the ways assemblies of technical practices have generated not just facts but also speculative phenomena that are a felt part of the world, even if intangible. How do speculative social science practices produce a world where undecided futures are brought into the present?

Speculation is a particular way of making futurity within the longer history of ways of positing the future.1 Broadly, speculation is an orientation of conjecture towards an uncertain horizon of expectation. The term is used generously to gather together wide ranging practices from a genre of fiction writing to high-stakes finance. One root of the meaning of speculation is observation, and thus the term also evokes ways of envisioning and bringing into awareness what is yet undecided. Speculation, used in this way, names epistemic practices in which future potentialities are summoned and become palpable in the present, whether or not they ever come to pass.2In financial speculation, a risky future is betted on in order to beckon high rates of financial return. In speculative fiction, a beyond to reality is conjured, often in ways that generates ethical or political attachments to a realm of possibility, of what could be. As a way of summoning future potentials and apprehending the intangible, speculation is kin to practices of imagination, fantasy, and dreaming. In this series of essays, I consider speculation to be a kind of technoscientific dreaming. Moreover, in the essays that follow I will give focus to this claim by tracking how girls and women have been important figures of technoscientific dreaming in twentieth century social science; their possible futures have been attached to projects of rejuvenating the macro-phenomena of society, the economy, populations, modernity, and nation-states. Entangled with governmentalities, twentieth century social science practices have helped to populate postcolonial dreamscapes with speculative futures for women and girls.

Dreaming is an activity that exceeds both rationality and materiality and yet is felt and consequential, and so I use dreaming here to think about the shared imaginaries and horizons of expectation that technoscientific practices populate the world with. As a kind of dreaming, speculation gives form to the future, yet nonetheless still involves an untethering from the present; it is a jump into the intangible yet-to-be, could be, and the undecided, even if the speculative practices themselves are rigorous methods of prediction, calculation, and extrapolation with respected pedigrees. Speculation tacks between intangibles, unknowns, and undecideds, on the one side, and epistemic practices of writing, calculation, and modelling, on the other. Within late twentieth century nation-states, technoscience dreamscapes were composed of potent intangibles such as the macroeconomy given to us by economic models and the index of GDP, or the web of social relations that entangle us mapped by sociologists and marketers. Intangible and speculative phenomena include forceful and significant forms such as population dynamics, the national economy, and consumer confidence, each of which secures the cosmology that politicians, scientists, academics, and lay people inhabit. Practices of calculating probabilities, modelling, forecasting, and scenario building are all, at least in part, examples of technoscientific dreaming performed by the assemblies of instruments, practices, logics, and habits that make up technoscience. While the history of science habitually emphasizes the rationalizing, computational, and statistical dimensions of speculative practices, in this trifecta of short essays I am interested in attending to the work of feeling futures and apprehending intangibilities that technoscience also accomplishes.

To think about a technoscience that dreams, it is helpful to turn to Walter Benjamin, who, writing about the modernity of 19th century Paris, described the “phantasmagoria” that commodity capitalism built into the materiality of shopping arcades and consumer products.3 Phantasmagoria was a form of European theatre in the late 18th and 19th centuries that used a modified magic lantern to make projections of bizarre, fabulous, and often frightening spectres. Phantasmagoria thus served as a kind of “spectral technology” that projected imaginaries into the world for viewers to join.4 Such projections were emotionally charged, provoking collectively experienced affect, and stirring audiences to question their senses and reality. For Benjamin, the modern city produced its own mass phantasma—collective dreamscapes that intoxicated urban life with the promissory potentials of an industrialized world. One of the tasks of the historian, according to Benjamin, was to attune to these collective phantasma and take notice of the world as constituted by historically specific shared imaginaries that were profoundly entangled with the concreteness of things.

In this spirit, speculation can be thought of as phantasma generating practices that for the past hundred years have offered a potent mode for orienting towards the future. While the phantasmagoria of the 19th century theatre had been associated primarily with gothic and horror performance, recent speculative phantasma are instead amorphous politically and emotionally. Moreover, while the phantasmagoria of the 19th century theatre were consciously created as illusions, I suggest that the phantasma of technocientific dreaming are decidedly not illusions, but rather constitutive of a world that includes felt and potent intangibles, a world in which technoscience dreaming – the generation and attachment to of a palpable yet-to-be – is core to so many social science practices. When the future is at stake in so much technoscience, then dreaming futures is one of its central activities. Within technoscience, phantasma accompany quantification as another kind of output, as the felt, aspirational, and consequential imaginaries that structure the world in profound ways, as a potent aura in surfeit of facticity.

The scholarly manifesto Speculate This! describes speculation as “a pressing toward an apprehension of the unknown,” suggesting that elusive futures can be felt and given form even if they are not fixed or fully legible.5 The manifesto suggests that this pressing towards the unknown can be divided into two different modes of conjuring future possibility: “affirmative speculation,” which attempts to experiment with and reopen the future against the hegemonic, as contrasted with “firmative speculation” which narrows potentialities to then exploit and foreclose them.6 For the manifesto, afrofuturism, speculative fiction, and contemporary techno-art are generative arenas of affirmative speculation. Good affirmative speculation opens imaginaries and potentials for other worlds, while bad technoscientific and economic speculation is “firmative” because it aims to fix possibilities so that they might be gamed to benefit only the few. This binary of opening and closing is an enticing framework for making sense of the politics of speculation, even if most speculative practices neither obey such moral neatness nor fit into an art versus science divide. What this distinction suggests, however, is that speculative practices do not merely amplify and expand uncertainty and possibility, but can by contrast restrain and limit the scope of futurity. When technoscience dreams futures, such dreams are not necessarily upturning of the sedimented habits of knowledge making, even if dreaming might hold that potential.

This chain of essays plays with the claim that technoscience is compelling for its ability to create not only facts, but also affectively charged temporized imaginaries. In these essays, I differentiate between kinds of speculation, attending to the often politically polyvalent work that dreaming futures does. More pointedly I ask, how have girls and women been the objects of ongoing postcolonial technoscientific speculative practices? Importantly, I do not mean actual women and girls, but rather the figure of women and girls as a figment of transnational social science, postcolonial development, and speculative practices.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, a multitude of cold war/postcolonial social science practices of development unfolded, each obsessed with women and girls, each projecting potent phantasma for the historian to notice. This thick globalized history of speculating about the future within development summoned the abstracted figure of girls as raced and gendered subjects in need of saving, enlightenment, protection, or investment. Figures of girls and women, whose bodies were the conduit to the future of the nation, often were the focus of development social science practices that conjured possible better and worse futures for decolonized places and brown bodies. Much of the planet was plotted as under the threat of a population bomb contained in the potential of women’s wombs, a bomb which could derail all other development projects aimed at creating a more prosperous economic modernity. Female bodies thus became a site that had to be calculated, forecasted, and intervened in for the sake of a promissory future of economic betterment, both for the individual and the nation. The dreamscapes of cold war/postcolonial social science were thick with female bodies and their future sexuality, fertility, rationality, deviance, health, longevity, and productivity.

This series opens with one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction, “Sultana’s Dream.” It then turns to the demographic transition, a model that helped to forecast the “population bomb,” followed by a final meditation on the rise of financialized “invest in a girl” campaigns at the end of the twentieth century. Together these shorts essays aspire to provoke consideration of the potency of technoscientific dreaming.

  1. From a historical perspective, there are many futures. That is, futurity, the epistemological and affective orientation towards the future, has multiple historical forms. In Futures Past, Reinhart Koselleck examines the relationships between past, present, and future in European thought.

    He argues that until the 18th century, European Christian temporality was shaped by a sense of continuity and sameness: today is like tomorrow, because time has moved according to external forces only interrupted at the end times, when the world will end. In the 18^th^ century, a sense of historical time congealed, in which the past differs from and shapes the arriving future. Thus, in historical time, the past accumulates to explain the peculiarity of the present, while the future becomes a horizon of expectation progressing forward. In historical time, the present becomes a shifting ratio of marching modernity between what was and what will be next. While we might quibble with Koselleck’s Euro-centric typology of time, the important methodological point is that we can historicize futurity as a relational effect and trace the work of technoscience in generating particular ways of doing futurity. As historians, we can investigate varieties of “futurities” co-existing and intermingling, but still distinguishable from one another, in the twentieth century. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). 

  2. V. Adams, A. Clarke, and M. Murphy, “Anticipation: Technoscience, Life, Affect, Temporality,” Subjectivities 28/1 (2009): 246-65. 

  3. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). 

  4. Terry Castle, “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie,” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 1 (October 1, 1988): 26–61; Benjamin, The Arcades Project; Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Reprint (The MIT Press, 1991). 

  5. Uncertain Commons, Speculate This! (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). Prospectus. 

  6. Uncertain Commons, Speculate This!

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